Emanuele, I understand your enthusiasm for the sport the rest of the world calls football, but I’m a little confused by your argument that the World Cup is good because it allows liberal NPR-types who run down their own countries the rest of the year to engage in a little meaningless nationalist chest-beating. That may provide us with an interesting irony, but it can’t be considered commendable. Confusing sports with politics is bad regardless of whether it is done by totalitarians or democrats, and that is why I insist that wrapping national sports teams in the flag is sheer humbug. While Americans are, unfortunately, as vulnerable to the appeal of sports globaloney, such as the Olympics, as anyone else, for the most part, we much prefer our own team sports to international competitions, and that is all the better. Keeping those flags and nationalist sentiments, which are so easily and wrongly manipulated by tyrannies, out of the realm of sport is much to be preferred.
If, as you suggest, the success of the U.S. team in the World Cup will discourage those who root for American decline in the world, then so much the better. Let the foes of the United States tremble, whether the reason be substantial or not. But the notion you advance, that the possibility of future American dominance in soccer (a sport in which it has lagged behind principally because most Americans don’t care much about it) will illustrate the greatness of the American character, is, while flattering to our vanity, just as much of a humbug as the idea that Eastern-bloc dominance in other sports during the Cold War illustrated the superiority of communism.
Indeed, the best example of this was the “miracle on ice,” when an underdog bunch of American college ice-hockey players defeated the mighty professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. As an American hockey fan, I was thrilled by it. But the widely believed notion that it was an illustration of American greatness or, heaven help us, that it helped win the Cold War, is sheer hyperbole. It was an amazing upset — but just a hockey game. The players on the Soviet hockey team were just athletes in red uniforms, not off-duty Gulag prison guards or KGB agents being bested by all-American G.I. Joes. The outcome had nothing to do with the triumph of American values any more than the numerous defeats inflicted on American squads at other times by that magnificent Soviet team portrayed the preeminence of the totalitarian ideology of their masters in the Kremlin.
While I wish the American team well in the subsequent rounds of the World Cup and encourage our friends around the world — who care more about this game than most of us here do — to root for them if they like, let us not make the mistake of confusing sports with politics or national character. Love of country has many admirable as well as distasteful manifestations. But good or bad, it has nothing to do with soccer or any other sport.